I don’t understand why my kids don’t want to play in the woods. There’s not much forest near our home, but there’s enough for building forts, climbing trees and digging in the dirt.
I want to play in the woods, but I’m worried what the neighbors might think if they saw me up a tree behind their home.
Though I grew up in Atlanta’s city limits, there were lots of wooded areas in my neighborhood plus a long creek that wound through the trees. My hood gang and I worked those woods and that creek every afternoon during school and all day in the summer and on weekends. Sometimes our parents forced us outside, but most of the time, we were there because we wanted to be there. Plus there wasn’t much else to do.
Back then, we didn’t have handheld video games or computers or 24-hour cartoon networks. The only television programming for kids was on was Saturday mornings and Sunday nights (remember The Wonderful World of Disney?). When I was inside, I could either play in my room, read, or do chores. It was boooooring (except for the reading). I much preferred being outside, shimmying up trees and playing a game my friends and I called guerilla warfare. It involved lots of surprise attacks and putting people in prisons made of sticks (for years I thought we were playing “gorilla” warfare since that’s what the boys I played with acted like most of the time).
So what’s changed since then? Well, there’s all the inside stimulation I mentioned in the form of screens. There are fewer woods and wild spaces in our cities. Parents are more protective. We’re more frightened of potential child predators and of letting our kids out of sight.
But what are our kids missing out on as a result? A lot, according to Richard Louv’s best-selling book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. This book made a splash when it was published a few years back. Since then a number of child specialists have written about and addressed our kids’ disconnect from nature.
Louv cites a 2002 British study that reported 8-year-olds could identify Pokémon characters far more easily than they could identify things such as an otter, a beetle, or an oak tree. That would describe my kids now. They can ID an otter, but not that the tree dropping acorns on our roof is an oak. They have, however, memorized the names and attributes of thousands of Pokémon characters.
Why does this matter? Studies have shown that wide gaps between humans and their natural environments can contribute to depression, and to that bugaboo of modern first world culture: obesity.
Plus it makes me sad that my kids may have more memories of playing DS games than of climbing trees. E-spouse, in particular, makes an effort to get our kids out camping and hiking, and Asheville’s a great place for that (both Asheville and Brevard were named as top spots to raise an outdoor kid by Backpacker Magazine in 2009), but lots of other kids may not have these opportunities (or the parental pressure). Plus, while it might be a losing battle, I’d like my children to want to play in the woods without us having to make an issue or an event out of it.
One local group that’s rising to the challenge of getting kids into the woods is a nonprofit called Muddy Sneakers, based in Brevard. Their tagline is “The joy of learning outside.”
In 2008, the group started working to get area students in grades five through eight into forested areas near their schools. They’re now in their second full school year. The Muddy Sneakers curriculum generally involves full day learning expeditions all focused on themes within the North Carolina Science Standard Course of Study.
What that means is kids get to spend all day out in the woods on a regular basis, learning about flowers, trees, rocks and bugs and frogs. They’re moving around and playing with dirt instead of electronics.
Currently, 13 schools in five WNC school systems are involved, but the goal is to spread the program across the Southern Appalachians, according to executive director Lauren Agrella. There’s already a long waiting list of schools that want to participate, but the organization needs more funding.
Getting kids back in the woods is a win-win. Connecting them with nature, healthy movement, and the web of life can sustain and nurture them throughout their lives.
But enough writing about it. I’m going out to the woods to build a fort. And I hope my kids will want to help.